My Turn: Natural gas is critical piece of environmental policy
A conviction that has guided President Obama’s energy policy since he took office is that solar and wind power, rather than natural gas, is the way to reduce U.S. greenhouse emissions.
It’s a way of thinking that reflects his close bond with the environmental community, which shares his preference for investing in renewable energy sources and conservation in the battle against global warming.
In a United Nations accord in 2009, Obama pledged that the United States would cut its greenhouse emissions 83 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. To achieve that difficult goal, the administration endorsed tax credits for wind energy and a big increase in research and development funding for a spectrum of renewable sources, especially solar energy.
Concurrently, 30 states, including New Hampshire, adopted renewable electricity standards requiring investor-owned utilities to produce a share of their power from renewable sources according to a set timetable, typically by 2020. But renewable sources have fallen short of expectations, outpaced by plentiful and cheap natural gas.
A case in point: Just a half decade ago, during the turmoil of 2008, it was widely assumed that a permanent era of energy shortage was at hand. But due to innovative drilling in the Marcellus, Utica and other shale formations, unconventional gas production has jumped from 2 percent of domestic gas production a decade ago to 37 percent of supply today. This is a game-changer that’s led not only to environmental gains but also the creation of 1.7 million jobs across the United States, including in states with no shale gas production such as those in New England and New York state.
Thanks to the shale revolution, the United States has an abundance of natural gas that is replacing coal in electricity production. Whereas solar and wind power combined currently account for less than 5 percent of the nation’s electricity, natural gas accounts for more than 30 percent of America’s power supply (and 36.5 percent in New Hampshire) – and its growing use is credited with playing the most significant part in a 13 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions since 2007.
What’s most notable about this success is that the decline in carbon emissions is likely to continue as power production shifts to greater use of natural gas, which has roughly half the carbon content of coal. To be sure, coal and nuclear power will remain part of the energy mix in New Hampshire and nationally, though at a reduced level compared to natural gas.
The fact that the United States has an abundance of natural gas is due largely to the use of an innovative technology that combines hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” with horizontal drilling in shale production. Estimates of recoverable natural gas reserves have more than doubled since 2005, and this has already had a major impact on electricity production, making the fuel more attractive to utilities.
Although solar and wind are emission-free, adding a new combined-cycle gas plant to the electric grid is less costly and more reliable. Today scores of natural gas plants are being used, along with nuclear power and coal, to provide “base-load” electricity 24/7, whereas solar and wind energy are only available when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
According to the Energy Information Administration, wind energy has a capacity factor of 32.3 percent and solar energy is even less at 27 percent. In the years ahead, demand for electricity will grow as our economy becomes increasingly digitalized and improvements to our nation’s infrastructure begin. So over-reliance on undependable solar and wind power would be problematic at the very least. Without greater reliability and new technology for large-scale electricity storage, the contribution to our power supply from renewable sources will continue to be relatively small.
Natural gas plants on average operate well over 50 percent of the time, and some at much higher capacity factors. We need to recognize the value of natural gas as a cornerstone of environmental policy, especially its benefit in reducing greenhouse emissions. However, if we fail to make use of what actually works in the real world rather than base energy policy on incorrect assumptions about renewable sources, we will wind up squandering government funds on the wrong energy approach.
(V.K. Mathur is professor emeritus in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of New Hampshire.)